A murder plot, a missing husband and polygamy: The wild true story behind Netflix's Tiger King.


Netflix’s latest true-crime series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, is certainly a wild ride.

In fact, in the grand scheme of things, the documentary series is probably the only thing on TV right now that’s actually more insane than what’s going on in the outside world. (And we all know that’s saying a lot).

The new series dives into the weird and wonderful world of big cat owners and enthusiasts in the United States.

Watch the trailer for Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness below. Post continues after video.

Over the course of seven episodes, the documentary follows Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as ‘Joe Exotic’, who describes himself as a “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet”.

Along the way, the series also introduces a bunch of unique figures in the big cat world.

Over seven episodes, co-directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin show these people’s truly bizarre lives in a story that involves murder-for-hire, polygamy, a cult-like leader, a mysterious disappearance, heavy drug use and exploitation of both animals and humans.


And as wild as it all sounds, it’s all based on an entirely bizarre true story.

Here’s everything you need to know about the true story behind Tiger King.

Who is Joe Exotic?

Joe Exotic was born in rural Kansas as Joseph Schreibvogel.

From a young age, Joe knew that he was gay. In his younger years, one of Joe’s siblings outed him to his father, who made him shake his hand in front of his mother and promise not to attend his funeral.

In the years that followed, Joe struggled with his father’s disapproval, which eventuated in a suicide attempt.

Mamamia’s daily entertainment podcast, The Spill, discuss Netflix’s Tiger King. Post continues below.

While recovering from the attempt, which left him severely injured, Joe began working at a pet shop alongside his brother, Garold Wayne. It was during this time that Joe’s deep love of animals began.

In 1997, Garold was killed in a car accident after being hit by a drunk driver. Following a lawsuit regarding Garold’s death, Joe used the $140,000 lawsuit settlement to open the doors to the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Oklahoma.

Initially, the park was home to a few donated animals, including deer, buffalo and a couple of tigers.

Within a few years, however, the park soon housed over 1,200 animals, including a large collection of big cats which were bred at the park.


As the park expanded, Joe became a celebrity-like figure in his local area. As he continued to breed animals, Joe began offering unique exotic animal experiences, including charging people for photos with newborn tiger cubs and taking his exotic pets on tours to malls around the country.

In addition to running the park, Joe also had a YouTube channel, a slew of merchandise and a short-lived attempted country music career. He also ran for President of the United States in 2016, and ran for Oklahoma governor in 2018.

In 2014, Joe married two men, Travis Maldonado and John Finlay, in a three-person wedding ceremony.

joe exotic now
Travis Maldonado, Joe Exotic and John Finlay. Image: Netflix.

Although John soon became estranged from Joe leading to the end of their relationship, Travis and Joe's relationship came to a tragic end in 2017. Travis accidentally shot himself in the head after attempting to demonstrate that his pistol would not fire as the ammunition chip had been removed. Travis' death was later deemed an accident by police.

Two months after Travis' death, Joe married Dillon Passage. According to Daily Beast, Joe and Dillon were still listed as legally married as of 2019.

Who is Carole Baskin?

While running the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park, Joe had consistent run-ins with animal activists, who took issue with the park and Joe's decision to breed the animals.

One of the biggest critics of Memorial Park was the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, Carole Baskin.

Carole, who is based in Tampa, Florida, has had a love and fascination of cats since her childhood.

The big cat lover opened the Big Cat Rescue facility with her then-husband and millionaire Don Lewis. Her plan was to give the animals a place to live out their lives in peace.

In 1997, however, Don disappeared without a trace. Don's children from a previous marriage have long claimed that Carole killed Don and fed him to her tigers. Don, who disappeared when he was 60 years old, was officially declared to be dead in 2002. (See, we told you this story was crazy.)


Carole later went on to marry former banker Howard Baskin, as the pair continued to run the big cat facility together. She also became highly involved in the fight to end the private ownership of big cats, which led to her eventual feud with Joe Exotic.

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Carole Baskin in Tiger King. Image: Netflix.

Why were Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic feuding?

For years, Joe did not hide his intense hatred of Carole and everything she stood for. In fact, he often openly harassed her on social media.


The feud worsened between the pair as Carole fought to stop Joe from breeding exotic cats. She also enlisted her broad fan base to send emails to venues and malls, calling on them to stop allowing his shows, which used live exotic animals.

In retaliation, Joe began a campaign for Carole to be arrested for her first husband's death, as he read aloud copies of her diary, which one of her former employees had stolen and shared online.

Then, in an effort to fool Carole's fans, Joe changed the name of his zoo to the name of Carole's company.

In 2011, Carole sued Joe for trademark infringement. The $1 million lawsuit led Joe to declare bankruptcy, meaning he had to hand ownership of the zoo over to another big cat lover, Jeff Lowe.

In the years after the lawsuit, Joe's hatred for Carole deepened and in 2017, he attempted to have her killed.

After paying an employee to kill Carole, who ran off with the money, the FBI sent an undercover agent to investigate Joe. Joe tried to hire the undercover agent to kill Carole, which later led to his arrest.

In April 2019, Joe was found guilty of attempting to pay a hitman to murder Carole. He was also found guilty of falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act.

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Image: Netflix.

In January 2020, Joe was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He believes the release of Tiger King may assist in his appeal.

Today, Carole is still alive and running Big Cat Rescue with her husband, Howard.

In recent weeks, Carole has opened up on her website about the Netflix series, which she has labelled "salacious and sensational".

"When the directors of the Netflix documentary Tiger King came to us five years ago they said they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive," she wrote.


"They did not care about truth. The unsavoury lies are better for getting viewers."

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Carole also opened up about her relationship with Joe.

"I think for Joe, [the feud] was probably very personal, because people said there wasn’t a day in his life that he wasn’t ranting and raving, and carrying on and calling out my name. But for me, he was just one of about a dozen of these bad guys that I was exposing online, talking to reporters about, and saying, 'No, conservation [does not mean] breeding tigers for use as pay-to-play props,'" she told the publication.

"He wasn’t a big part of my life in any way, and to have it be this great story… it’s been really frustrating for that to be the perception that he was some huge part of my life."

All seven episodes of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness are available to watch on Netflix now.

Feature Image: Netflix.

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